15 July 2017

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | July 2017: Jeffrey Roden — threads of a prayer, Volume 2 (J. Fišer, Š. Ježek, S. Marciniak, W. Fischer, T. Fischer, S. I. Bartoli; Solaire Records SOL1004)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | July 2017: Jeffrey Roden - THREADS OF A PRAYER, Volume 2 (Solaire Records SOL1004)JEFFREY RODEN: threads of a prayer, Volume 2Jakub Fišer and Štěpán Ježek, violin; Szymon Marciniak, double bass; Wolfgang Fischer, timpani; Tobias Fischer, organ; Sandro Ivo Bartoli, piano [Recorded in Reitstadel, Neumarkt in der Oberpfalz, Germany, 20 – 22 May 2016; Solaire Records SOL1004; 1 CD, 53:01; Available from Solaire Records and major music retailers]

Who hears the prayers of those whose voices have been stifled? What deities are there to comfort those who have learned to seek peace in annihilation? Which are the Psalms to read over the corpses of those who never found love? Where are the places in which those who have no home can find rest? There are few things more injurious to the integrity of an artist’s work than seeking philosophical agendas in it, but there are artists whose endeavors transcend the traditional boundaries of the media in which they work. To experience the music of Jeffrey Roden solely with the ears would be akin to viewing the canvases of Frida Kahlo and perceiving only fantastical colors, hearing none of the voices that scream from her images and feeling none of the wounds that tear at the paint. Continuing the journey begun with the 2016 release of the breathtakingly original first volume [reviewed here], the second volume of Solaire Records’ threads of a prayer introduces another quartet of Roden’s works in performances that utilize sound as only one medium of their existence. This is music that must be lived, not merely heard, and the performances on this disc make passive listening impossible.

Describing the first work on the disc, the field, as a trio for violin, double bass, and timpani is to impose upon the music a measure of formality that its ethos unmistakably rejects. Produced, engineered, and edited by Solaire Records founder Dirk Fischer, the disc’s soundscape is itself a component of the field’s impact. Crawling out of primordial silence like the first sprout of a germinating seed, the music spreads its tentative rhythmic steps upon crumbling tonal ground, seeking the strength to stand and survey its surroundings. Included in Solaire’s typically engaging liner notes, Roden’s poem ‘the field’ proposes a literary translation of the field’s aural message.

mist
ribbon like
rising
above the sacred grove
where there
will be
a great
suffering
cast upon
the beauty
of the earth

Played by Jakub Fišer, first violin of the Bennewitz Quartet, double bassist Szymon Marciniak, and timpanist Wolfgang Fischer, the piece is poetry in its own right, the music uncannily paralleling the complexities of humanity in the manners in which the parts coexist, sometimes seeming to shun interaction and then coveting their collisions as invigorating, life-affirming connections. Rarely are the double bass and timpani as communicative as Roden, Marciniak, and Fischer make them, and there is sweetness in Fišer’s tones even when stridency is the composer’s mandate. Applying the imagery of Roden’s words to the music, beauty materializes as an inalienable element of the ‘great suffering,’ particularly when beauty is prized above all other conditions. As performed here, the field is a musical parable that warns of the quiet destruction that lurks behind the masks that beauty wears.

Scored for violin, double bass, and organ, as we rise up recalls Baroque trio sonatas in concept if not in content. Here, too, Roden’s part writing casts the instruments as participants in an unscripted drama, emphasizing the significance of both their individual voices and their contributions to the ensemble. If the field is a cautionary parable steeped in apprehensive sadness, as we rise up is the reactionary explosion of impotent anger that groans, ‘I told you so!’ As in the field, there is unnerving beauty within the strands of the music, however: in this piece, it is the random, horrible beauty of chaos. One of the most extraordinary facet’s of Roden’s artistry is his ability to find the music in cataclysm and share it with listeners without dictating a desired response. Any composer can write tragic music, but only a complete artist can discern and transpose into sounds within the capacities of instruments the raw music of tragedy. Fišer’s Bennewitz Quartet colleague Štěpán Ježek phrases the violin lines with dexterity and imagination, and Marciniak matches his flawless intonation. As played by Tobias Fischer, the electric organ is not unlike the chamber organs frequently employed in Baroque music, its sonorities in as we rise up serving as a freely-deployed ground bass in the mode of Buxtehude and Pachelbel. The violence in the music disturbs more deeply for being enacted with such concentrated expressivity. Played so hypnotically, as we rise up is wondrously distressing. Is this truly external music, or is Roden ingeniously echoing the music of discontent that roars in each listener’s mind?

A noteworthy interpreter of music in a mind-boggling variety of idioms, Italian pianist Sandro Ivo Bartoli has fashioned an estimable career on his own terms, extracting from the instruments that he plays their own unique personalities rather than suppressing them with an artificial persona of his devising. His ambitions are driven by the demands of the music that he plays, not by the dictates of commercialism or meaningless celebrity. His technique is remarkable, the clarity of his articulations of even the most complex passages reminiscent of Rudolf Firkušný’s playing of music by Chopin or Martinů, but it is not the action of his fingers and wrists that marks Bartoli’s performance of Roden’s threads of a prayer as the work of a great artist. Under his touch, the warm-toned Steinway that he plays is transformed by Roden’s music from an instrument of wood, iron, and steel into a creature of flesh and blood, one whose voice utters the threads of its prayer with urgency.

The symbiosis between music and musician in Bartoli’s account of the first of Roden’s 6 pieces for the unknown for piano is stunning. In sequence, the six pieces constitute a tone poem that examines variations on the theme of unspoken feelings. The pianist’s playing of the second piece shimmers with subdued yearning, expanded in the third piece into a grandiose but subtle discourse between the musics of sound and silence. A lauded exponent of Franz Liszt’s piano music, Bartoli performs the fourth of the 6 pieces no less dazzlingly. The interpretive virtuosity required by Roden’s music is vastly different from the nimbleness necessitated by Liszt’s extroverted exhibitionism, but Bartoli’s emotive adroitness equals the marvels of his fingering. Like the final movements of a Baroque suite, the fifth and sixth pieces further develop the thematic material of the foregoing pieces, but there is no resolution in Roden’s music. Perhaps the unknown aspect referenced in the 6 pieces’s title is the absence of temporal definitions: this is not music that can be measured in seconds or minutes, with pauses for polite applause. Roden writes and Bartoli in this performance plays in Faulknerian stream-of-consciousness style, the music flowing with the naturalness of thought. Roden’s creative energy dwells in the unknowable, but what is known is that this is momentous music, fittingly performed.

When pressing ‘Play’ in order to hear a recording of music by Jeffrey Roden for the first time, the only certainty is that the sounds that emerge will be incomparably original, provocative, and utterly unfeigned. Hearing this second volume of threads of a prayer brings to mind history’s chronicle of the afternoon of 19 November 1863, when Abraham Lincoln managed to more eloquently convey the feelings of a nation battered by war in fewer than three hundred words than a celebrated orator had done in two hours. As performed on this disc, Roden’s music does with modest means what Frida Kahlo could do with a single painted blossom. Spurning the elitism that now oppresses the composition, performance, recording, and hearing of Classical Music, this is music of the people, by the people, and for the people—people willing to listen with both their ears and their souls.

14 July 2017

CD REVIEW: Sir Edward Elgar — THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS (A. Staples, C. Wyn-Rogers, T. Hampson; DECCA 483 1585)

CD REVIEW: Sir Edward Elgar - THE DREAM OF GERONTIUS (DECCA 483 1585)SIR EDWARD ELGAR (1857 – 1934): The Dream of Gerontius, Opus 38Andrew Staples (Gerontius), Catherine Wyn-Rogers (The Angel), Thomas Hampson (The Priest, The Angel of the Agony); Staatsopernchor Berlin, RIAS Kammerchor, Konzertchor und Jugendchor der Staatsoper Unter den Linden; Staatskapelle Berlin; Daniel Barenboim, conductor [Recorded in conjunction with live performances in Berliner Philharmonie, Berlin, Germany, 16 – 17 and 19 – 20 September 2016; DECCA 483 1585; 2 CDs, 94:01; Available from Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

The isolation that often separates artists from their societies has been both a part and a product of the creative process since man first expressed himself in verse, song, and imagery. In the Biblical narrative of Eden, man’s relative proximity to divinity isolates him from the meaner inhabitants of earth, a chasm between humanity and the natural world made arrestingly visual in Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Cappella Sistina. In Shakespeare, the artistic temperament of Prospero encloses him away from the other players in his drama, and Hamlet’s brooding solitude engenders an emotional distance that not even Horatio can span. There are moments of compassion and conviviality, sometimes even genuine comfort, but full communion among artists and their surroundings is too often thwarted by mistrust and misunderstanding. This isolation, equally crippling and liberating, is a central focus of Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman’s 1865 poem The Dream of Gerontius, an examination of a soul’s transition from life to afterlife that in the 1880s appealed to Antonín Dvoŕák, a man of great faith in a time of rapidly-spreading secularism, as a potential subject for a large-scaled choral work. Never taken up by the Czech composer, Newman’s words were ultimately matched with music by Sir Edward Elgar, whose Dream of Gerontius was composed in fulfillment of a commission from the Birmingham Triennial Music Festival and first performed—poorly, history records—at that gathering on 3 October 1900. It was an auspicious point of departure for choral music in the Twentieth Century and a lone artist’s warning to a world already on the brink of total war.

From the informed perspective of the Twenty-First Century, it is difficult to fathom that Elgar, the most quintessentially English of composers, was in a real sense an artist without a country. A devout Catholic in an unyielding Protestant society, Elgar was at odds with the artistic establishment of which his own music was a vital component. Though the ceremonial toll exacted by his faith was considerably higher than the true professional cost, the official patronage and recognition that he was denied by the country of which he was the undisputed musical monarch cannot have failed to awaken in Elgar a feeling of disenfranchisement. That Cardinal Newman was himself a convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism undoubtedly intensified the allure of his words for Elgar, who received as a wedding gift an annotated copy of Newman’s poem that had belonged to General Gordon, the self-appointed martyr of the 1885 massacre of Khartoum. Possessing an uncanny intuition for selecting texts that, even when undeniably pompous, stoked his creative genius, Elgar brought to Newman’s words a wealth of imagination that was manifested in music of tremendous difficulty and still-potent beauty. Not even the score winning the esteem of Richard Strauss spared Elgar the indignities of seeing both his instructions that Dream of Gerontius not be termed an oratorio ignored and the work’s Catholic point of view modified to suit Anglican tastes. Not quite four months remained in Queen Victoria’s long reign at the time of Gerontius’s first performance: already in danger of becoming an anachronism, Elgar propelled himself and his reluctant countrymen into tuneful but terrifying modernity.

A committed advocate for Elgar’s music in concert halls and recording studios, Buenos Aires-born conductor Daniel Barenboim continues his survey of the composer’s music for DECCA with a superlatively-engineered account of The Dream of Gerontius recorded in conjunction with much-discussed performances in Berlin’s Philharmonie. DECCA’s sonics capture the frisson of live performance with virtually none of the distracting blemishes, and the venue’s spacious acoustic is a worthy setting for the sumptuous but sinewy playing of Staatskapelle Berlin, a source of strength throughout the performance. This recording is among Barenboim’s finest outings as a conductor, his pacing of the score meriting favorable comparison with long-respected performances led by Sir Malcolm Sargent, Sir Adrian Boult, and Sir John Barbirolli. The ‘Lento, mistico’ marking of the Prelude’s opening is meticulously observed, and the orchestra’s wind playing here and throughout the performance is superb. Following with the score, it is possible to note Barenboim’s reaction to virtually every shift in tempo or dynamics. When the music calls for vehemence, the conductor does not shrink from it, but the dramatic thrust of this Gerontius is never forced. Aided by DECCA’s production team, Barenboim and the orchestra attain—and maintain—aural balances in which details of Elgar’s orchestrations, particularly his inspired writing for the harp, are consistently audible within appropriate perspectives. Instructions such as ‘crescendo ed agitato,’ ‘naturale,’ and ‘affrettando’ have logical, discernible meaning in this performance. Considering his decades-long relationship with the music of Richard Wagner, Barenboim’s insightful handling of musical textures is not surprising, but there is much about his leadership of this Dream of Gerontius that profoundly surprises and gratifies. Above all, Barenboim and his German colleagues prove that suggestions that this music is too English to be wholly effective beyond Britain’s borders are as idiotic as they are ill-founded.

Under the direction of chorus masters Martin Wright and Justin Doyle, the combined personnel of the Staatsopernchor and RIAS Kammerchor bring to this performance of Dream of Gerontius irreproachable musicality, immaculate intonation, excellent diction, and complete comfort with Elgar’s demanding choral writing—an accomplishment that infamously eluded the choir by which the music was first performed. As the Assistants observing Gerontius’s final hours on earth in Part One, the choristers deliver ‘Kyrie eleïson’ with an apt aura of supplication, and their singing of ‘Be merciful, be gracious; spare him, Lord’ is entrancingly pleading. Darker sentiments increase the fervor of the chorus’s entreaties with the evocation of iniquity in ‘Rescue him, O Lord, in this his evil hour,’ but the faithful sincerity of ‘Go, in the name of Angels and Archangels’ is touchingly conveyed. The Berliners revel in portraying the Demons who haunt Gerontius’s second Part, voicing ‘Lowborn clods of earth, they aspire to become gods’ and ‘The mind bold and independent’ with exhilaratingly infernal ferocity. The religious ardor of their performances of the Angelicals’ ‘Praise to the Holiest in the height’ and ‘Glory to Him, who evermore by truth and justice reigns’ equals the zeal of their demonic utterances, and in both the earthly voices’ ‘Be merciful, be gracious; spare him, Lord’ and the Purgatory-bound souls’ ‘Lord, Thou hast been our refuge’ their vocalism capitalizes on the music’s potential to startle and soothe. The English choral tradition is rightly legendary, but the choral singing on this recording confirms that Berlin is as natural a home for Gerontius as Birmingham.

In his singing of the Priest and the Angel of the Agony, American baritone Thomas Hampson wields the vocal and histrionic gravitas that the music needs without pushing the voice. In Part One, he phrases the Priest’s ‘Proficiscere, anima Christiana, de hoc mundo!’ with keen response to the text, breathing life into Elgar’s poignant setting of the Latin words. Greater effort is expended in Hampson’s singing in this performance than in his previous recordings of similar repertory such as the title rôles in Mendelssohn’s Elijah and Paulus, but his years of experience have honed his interpretive skills without diminishing his vocal control. As the Angel of the Agony in Part Two, the baritone voices ‘Jesu! by that shuddering dread which fell on Thee’ with stern authority, the words receiving as much of the singer’s scrutiny as the notes. Even with so many fascinating operatic characterizations to his credit, this is among Hampson’s best recorded performances. An exceptionally persuasive rendering of Elgar’s forthright music on his own terms, Hampson’s singing in this Dream of Gerontius is also a lesson for young singers in the art of preserving the voice by safeguarding both the technique and one’s artistic integrity.

It is now nearly a quarter-century since the impeccably-schooled voice of British mezzo-soprano Catherine Wyn-Rogers first counseled a recorded Gerontius in his preparation for divine judgment. Interacting with the Gerontius of Anthony Rolfe Johnson under the baton of Vernon Handley, she was a serene presence as the Angel. Like Hampson, Wyn-Rogers has managed her career with rare intelligence, and her sagacity has fortified the voice against the ill effects of passing time. With her pianissimo statement of ‘My work is done, my task is o’er,’ building to a secure fortissimo E at the top of the stave, she recreates the emotional honesty of her 1993 performance and adds a new dimension of restrained rapture. There is in her assertion of ‘You cannot now cherish a wish which ought not to be wished’ a sense of gentle reprimand, the singer’s adherence to Elgar’s ‘espressivo’ direction supported by the conductor. The mezzo-soprano differentiates ‘It is because then thou didst not fear, that now thou dost not fear’ and ‘They sing of thy approaching agony’ with subtle inflections rather than overstated emoting, and her voicing of ‘And now the threshold, as we traverse it, utters aloud its glad responsive chant’ and ‘O happy, suffering soul! for it is safe’ exudes the assurance of triumphant faith. Wyn-Rogers’s singing in this Dream of Gerontius is never more beautiful than in ‘Softly and gently, dearly ransom’d soul,’ her timbre glimmering. Like Hampson’s, Wyn-Rogers’s vocalism is now marginally more laborious than in years past, but the rewards are also more special. As a young singer in training, Wyn-Rogers won the Royal College of Music’s prize honoring contralto Dame Clara Butt, for whom Elgar composed his Sea Pictures: with her singing in this performance of Dream of Gerontius, she earns the distinction anew.

Much of the attention garnered by the performances of Dream of Gerontius that produced this recording was focused on who did not sing the title rôle, a surely unintentional affront to the very gifted artist who stepped in and furnished a beautifully-sung, unaffectedly moving interpretation of Gerontius. Created in the work’s 1900 première by Edward Lloyd, a tenor acclaimed for his singing of rôles in sacred works by Sir Arthur Sullivan and Sir Hubert Parry, Gerontius has been sung by a broad spectrum of voices ranging from the lyric instruments of Gervase Elwes and Heddle Nash to the Wagnerian heft of Jon Vickers and John Mitchinson. In Berlin in 2016, the part was sung by native Londoner Andrew Staples, a tenor whose artistry recalls the interpretive finesse and honeyed tones of Elwes. As the man facing death in Part One, Staples lofts Gerontius’s words on plumes of ideally-supported tone, declaiming ‘Jesu, Maria — I am near to death’ with dulcet simplicity. His exhortation to ‘Rouse thee, my fainting soul, and play the man’ is suitably inspiriting, and, like Hampson, the tenor excels in Elgar’s Latin word painting, voicing ‘Sanctus fortis, Sanctus Deus, de profundis oro te’ with expressive immediacy. Staples sings ‘I can no more; for now it comes again’ with a sudden rush of trepidation, and his ‘Novissima hora est; and I fain would sleep’ is the exclamation of a man wearied by life.

In the depiction of the harrowing progress of Gerontius’s soul towards final judgment in Part Two, Staples avoids operatic ostentation, building his portrayal upon a foundation of subtlety and sensitivity. The wonder with which ‘I went to sleep; and now I am refresh’d’ is phrased is obviously heartfelt, and Staples communicates the breadth of the character’s faith with exquisitely-wrought performances of ‘I would have nothing but to speak with thee for speaking’s sake’ and ‘My soul is in my hand.’ When Gerontius’s soul sings ‘I hear the voices that I left on earth’ in this performance, it is with reverence rather than wistfulness. Like his Angel, this soul’s voice is most beguiling when embracing the resolution of the spiritual journey, Staples singing ‘Take me away, and in the lowest deep there let me be’ with grace that not even Nicolai Gedda effectuated. Virtually every Gerontius on disc offers his own unique qualities, but Staples’s interpretation on these discs arises from as complete a mastery of the rôle’s diverse challenges as any singer has exhibited in recent memory.

Proving that The Dream of Gerontius is a work of immense significance in the career of its composer and the histories of English choral music and Western art is a responsibility that this recording and the artists who participated in it do not bear, but were this the sole evidence with which to assess the score’s value the judgment would be an affirmation of the widespread acclaim that the music has kindled in the 117 years since it was first heard. This performance of Elgar’s candid paean to the transfiguring tribulations of an artist’s soul achieves what any performance of The Dream of Gerontius should do: the isolation that is so inherent a part of an artist’s existence can perhaps never be eradicated, and perhaps should not be, but this Gerontius’s dream of reminding the listener of the universality of man’s fears, failings, and reliance upon hope comes marvelously to fruition.

13 July 2017

CD REVIEW: Back to the Future — Journeys through the History of the Harpsichord guided by Catalina Vicens (Carpe Diem Records CD-16312) and Christopher D. Lewis (Naxos 8.559843)

CD REVIEW: Harpsichord Journeys by Catalina Vicens (Carpe Diem Records CD-16312) and Christopher D. Lewis (Naxos 8.559843)[1] ANTONIO DE CABEZÓN (circa 1510 – 1566), VINCENZO CAPIROLA (1474 – after 1548), MARCHETTO CARA (circa 1465 – 1525), MARCO ANTONIO CAVAZZONI (circa 1490 – circa 1560), JOAN AMBROSIO DALZA (fl. 1508), FABRIZIO DENTICE (circa 1539 – 1581), JOSQUIN DESPREZ (circa 1452 – 1518), JACOPO FOGLIANO (1468 – 1548), PHILIPPE DE MONTE (1521 – 1603), RANIER (fl. early 16th Century), CLAUDIN DE SERMISY (circa 1490 – 1562), BARTOLOMEO TROMBONCINO (1470 – after 1534), ANTONIO VALENTE (circa 1520 – 1580), CLAUDIO VEGGIO (circa 1510 – after 1543), and ADRIAN WILLAERT (circa 1490 – 1562): Il Cembalo di Partenope – A Renaissance musical tale featuring music in and around 16th-Century NaplesCatalina Vicens, harpsichord [Recorded in the National Music Museum, Vermillion, South Dakota, USA, during May 2015; Carpe Diem Records CD-16312; 1 CD, 66:35; Available from Carpe Diem Records, Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

[2] VINCENT PERSICHETTI (1915 – 1987): Harpsichord Sonatas and SerenadeChristopher D. Lewis, harpsichord [Recorded at Belvedere Estate, Belvedere, California, USA, 14 – 18 March 2016; Naxos 8.559843; 1 CD, 65:16; Available from Naxos Direct, Amazon (USA), jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In some glorious hour in human history, the communications among people and their societies were magnificently altered by the harnessing of music. In the play of wind among trees, the gurgling flow of water, and the innumerable melodies of nature, the earth has always resounded with music, but with man’s contrived mimicry of nature’s voices was born a diversion so perfect that not even centuries of constant change have spoiled it. As music’s path has wound through countless cultures, an astounding diversity of styles and traditions has been accumulated—and with them an ever-expanding arsenal of instruments echoing the sounds emerging from the minds of the custodians of music’s evolution.

In 1397, a writer in Padova recorded an innovation that was destined to hew from the bedrock of musical invention a path that, 620 years after that fateful mention of the development of the ‘clavicembalum,’ continues to be extended into new artistic territory. Likely devised as an amalgamation of the organ and the Medieval psaltery, the harpsichord was by the end of the Fifteenth Century familiar in various forms throughout Western Europe. In guises that would be recognized by Twenty-First-Century observers, the harpsichord became the prevalent keyboard instrument of the Baroque, prized in both solo and continuo capacities until it was supplanted in the second half of the Eighteenth Century by prototypes of the modern piano. Biding its time in opera houses’ orchestra pits and private collections until pioneering artists like Wanda Landowska and Igor Kipnis returned it to concert halls and recording studios, the harpsichord is now espoused by some of the Twenty-First Century’s most gifted composers and musicians. Approaching the instrument from vastly different periods in its history, two of today’s most enterprising artists guide listeners through enchanting treks into neglected niches of the harpsichord’s bounteous repertory via discs as personal as they are accomplished. It is not only in All That Jazz that ‘everything old is new again’: music, too, is cyclical, and these releases reaffirm that so much of the future can be found in the past by those willing to seek it.

Before the advent of motion pictures with sound, films were often accompanied by live music, utilizing music’s power to conjure and complement visual imagery. The efficacy of verbal storytelling is challenged by the limitations of language, but music transcends the necessity of understanding words. Among today’s exponents of early repertory for the harpsichord, there is no more talented a musical raconteuse than Chilean harpsichordist Catalina Vicens, and with Il Cembalo di Partenope she not only weaves a kaleidoscopic tapestry with musical threads but creates her own context for the chosen music in an imaginatively-conceived and thoughtfully-written ‘Renaissance tale,’ both printed in the accompanying liner notes and available for download as an audio book narrated by Vicens’s own melodious voice. Masterfully recorded by Carpe Diem Records in one of America’s foremost artistic treasures, the National Music Museum on the Vermillion campus of the University of South Dakota, the vehicle for Vicens’s musical pilgrimage to Sixteenth-Century Naples is the world’s oldest known harpsichord still in playable condition. Any suspicions of pedantry roused by this fact are wholly unfounded: a wealth of scholarship contributed to the making of this disc, of course, but Vicens’s playing takes the listener on a visceral adventure that blows dusty academia aside with a gale of timeless artistic prescience.

Little is known about many of the composers whose music is included on Il Cembalo di Partenope, but the acquaintance provided by Vicens’s playing puts to rest any doubts about the skills possessed by these little-remembered names and the quality of their work. Launching her voyage with a crisply-phrased account of Antonio Valente’s Fantasia del primo tono, published in 1576, this brilliantly expressive artist exploits the unique sound of the instrument, a Neapolitan model by an unidentified maker that likely dates from the first quarter of the Sixteenth Century, to evoke aural souvenirs of late-Renaissance Naples. Vincenzo Capirola’s ‘La villanella,’ first printed in 1517, is played with the grace of a dove soaring above the Duomo di San Gennaro. Vicens revisits the music of Valente with his Gagliarda napolitana, beguilingly done, and she explores the Spanish influence in Naples, a viceroyalty of the Aragonese House of Trastámara during the first half of the Sixteenth Century, with an elegant traversal of Antonio de Cabezón’s Obra sobre cantus firmus. One of his era’s preeminent tunesmiths, Bartolomeo Tromboncino anticipated the work of Francesco Cavalli in music of melodic fecundity. Vicens delivers his ‘Amor quando fioriva’ with hypnotic charm, and she finds in the thematic material of the enigmatic Ranier’s ‘Me lassera tu mo’ an entrance into a mysterious world of complex, startlingly modern emotions. Her period-appropriate but unexaggeratedly theatrical performances mine the lodes of sentimental significance in Joan Ambrosia Dalza’s Calata ala spagnola and Tromboncino’s ‘Poi che volse,’ making each piece a thought-provoking tableau within her panorama of Neapolitan life.

Regarding Vicens’s prevailing concept as a window opened to the extraordinary vistas of an ordinary day in a vibrant city, morning gives way to afternoon in the harpsichordist’s touchingly sincere performance of Dalza’s Pavana alla ferrarese. The blazing Neapolitan sun reaches its zenith in the sonic skies of Jacopo Fogliano’s Ricerchare and Marchetto Cara’s ‘Cantai mentre nel core,’ both presented with characteristic intensity that never threatens to obstruct appreciation of the music’s historical provenance. Perhaps also by Cara, ‘Per dolor mi bagno el viso’ receives from Vicens a traversal of understated grandeur that contrasts with the almost secretive intimacy of her playing of Tromboncino’s ‘Stavasi amor’ and ‘Che farala che dirala.’ The singular sonorities of Marco Antonio Cavazzoni’s ‘Recercada di mã ca’ are spellbinding as realized by Vicens, whose articulations of rhythmic and harmonic patterns awaken in the instrument beneath her fingers the distant voices not only of Luigi Rossi, Monteverdi, and Cavalli but also those of Stravinsky, Tippett, and Glass. Though precious little information about his life exists, the importance of Josquin Desprez’s music in the ongoing maturation of Western polyphony cannot be overstated. Vicens’s playing of Cavazzoni’s treatment of Desprez’s ‘Plus ne regres’ assumes a pivotal position in the narrative of Il Cembalo di Partenope: here, the sun sets on the horizon of the musician’s Neapolitan landscape, heralding the transitions to night and new ages in musical expression.

With her playing of ‘Vi’ recercada,’ attributed to Claudio Veggio, Vicens affectionately guides her tale towards its conclusion, caressing the music with a mother’s tenderness. Emotional honesty is also at the core of her account of Cavazzoni’s ‘Madame vous aves,’ her focus on elucidating the composer’s ingenuity enhanced by the lightness of her touch. Veggio’s own Recercada per b quadro and his setting of Claudin de Sermisy’s ‘Tant que vivray’ draw from Vicens tempests of artistic temperament that metamorphose the harpsichord into a vessel that whisks the listener to destinations beyond the physical senses’ perceptive capabilities. What she achieves within the scope of historical accuracy with Fabrizio Dentice’s Volta de spagna and Valente’s retooling of Philippe de Monte’s ‘Sortemplus disminuita’ is remarkable, this centuries-old music sounding as though it were being created anew as Vicens performs it. Returning to Valente first with his adaptation of Adrian Willaert’s ‘Chi la dirra’ and then with his Recercata del primo tono, Il Cembalo di Partenope’s expedition, like a party descending from the summit of Everest, retraces familiar ground but with new awareness of its originality.

In opera, it has often been said that there are no small rôles, only singers of diminutive artistic stature who fail to take advantage of the opportunities that composers offer them. Vicens asserts with her playing on this disc that there is in the harpsichord repertory no ‘old music’; no music, that is, that cannot be reinvented and rejuvenated by an artist attuned to the veins of unchanging humanity in even the most archaic pieces. When the music on Il Cembalo di Partenope was new, Naples was a bustling metropolis, the second largest city in Europe and a cosmopolitan crossroads of art and trade rivaled only by Paris. Vicens’s playing reverberates with the authentic voices of Sixteenth-Century Naples, and how current they sound!

Born in Philadelphia in 1915, American composer and pedagogue Vincent Persichetti exerted an influence on the music of his native country that now, thirty years after his death in 1987, remains insufficiently appreciated. Not least in his tenure on the Juilliard faculty, during which his students included Leonardo Balada, Richard Danielpour, Philip Glass, Lowell Liebermann, Einojuhani Rautavaara, and Peter Schickele, Persichetti’s teaching furthered the legacy of his own studies with Fritz Reiner and Olga Samaroff, fusing a thorough grounding in European traditions with strikingly original elements of American modernism. The advancement of the composer’s individual compositional idiom during the 1950s coincided with his burgeoning acquaintance with the harpsichord, and his compositions for the instrument—ten sonatas, the fifteenth of his Serenades, the twenty-fourth of his Parables, and his Little Harpsichord Book—chart the course of Persichetti’s stylistic progress. Three decades separated the completions of his first and second Harpsichord Sonatas, bridging a period in his career during which some of his most memorable music was created. In addition to his symphonies, chamber music, and piano sonatas, all of which merit places in the repertories of talented ensembles and soloists, Persichetti’s insightful and approachable tome on Twentieth-Century harmony should be required reading for every student of music of that period.

Starting his public career as a pianist and composer whilst still an adolescent, Persichetti was a precocious artist, and the spirit of his youthful mastery electrifies the performances of his music on this handsomely-recorded Naxos disc by Welsh harpsichordist Christopher D. Lewis. As in his previous recordings for Naxos, the eloquence of Lewis’s playing of Persichetti’s music belies his youth. The notion of a young musician having an ‘old soul’ is silly if rather poetic, but Lewis is an artist whose sensibilities encompass a near-boundless array of musical styles. Playing the first three Sonatas on this disc on a resplendent Pleyel concert harpsichord of the type preferred by Wanda Landowska and employing an instrument completed in 1997 by San Francisco-based maker Kevin Fryer after a Seventeenth-Century Flemish model by Ioannes Rucker for the remaining Sonatas and Serenade, Lewis perpetuates the initiative begun by Vicens, broadening listeners’ experiences with the harpsichord by venturing further into the immense trove of music composed for the instrument.

Completed in 1951, Persichetti’s first Sonata (Opus 52) is in many ways a transitional work in which the composer’s avant garde proclivities are tempered by increasing lyricism. The Sonata’s first movement, itself a transition from Andante sostenuto to Allegro, is played by Lewis with an outpouring of energy that ignites the sparks that crackle in the music. The subsequent Adagio movement is a sort of tonal oasis and is handled in this performance with well-considered sensitivity that deprives the piece of none of its potency. The following Vivace is dispatched with the sizzle of summer lightning, its technical demands effortlessly met by Lewis. The artistic growth exhibited by Sonata No. 3 (Opus 149), written in 1983, is unmistakable, Persichetti’s voice now more confident. Lewis’s performance highlights the assurance of the composer’s work. As played here, it is not the bracing harmonic complexities of the opening Allegro moderato that compel admiration but the intuition with which they are executed, revealing the organic logic with which the music was constructed. Lewis’s tempo for the Adagietto revels in the music’s inherent expressivity without impeding its momentum, and the bravado with which he plays the Allegro molto, again successfully targeting the soul of Persichetti’s score, is both exciting and enlightening.

A product of 1984, Sonata No. 5 (Opus 152) also reflects the shifting priorities not only of Persichetti’s mode of composition but also of writing for the keyboard in general. Here and in the subsequent Sonatas on this disc, thematic development exerts greater emotional force, exemplified by the Fifth Sonata’s slyly stirring Moderato. Lewis maintains precisely the attitude of informed ambivalence that lures the listener into the intricacies of the music. There is nothing ambivalent about his sensual, seductive playing of the Andante or the rousing ebullience with which he traverses the Allegro, however. Another three years passed before the completion of Sonata No. 8 (Opus 158) in 1987, the final year of his life, and in that interim Persichetti further refined his command of writing for the harpsichord. The depth of Lewis’s response to Persichetti’s music is apparent in the immediacy with which his playing exposes the continuous transmutations of the composer’s artistry. Both the Andante sostenuto and Allegro ma grazioso movements are presented with complete comprehension of the manner in which the composer manipulated thematic material to achieve intriguing and sometimes deceptive continuity. The buoyancy of the rhythmic figurations of the concluding Allegro con moto is ideally conveyed by Lewis’s effervescent performance.

Sonata No. 9 (Opus 163) followed the Eighth Sonata in 1987, but the atmosphere that it inhabits scarcely resembles that of the earlier work. In the Moderato first movement, the pace of Lewis’s playing manifests the sobriety of Persichetti’s writing with surprisingly moving simplicity. There is a formality in the Andantino that the harpsichordist here translates into clear-eyed emotional honesty, extracting from the music the essence of the composer’s inspiration. The surging Allegro erupts from Lewis’s fingers. Also dating from 1987, the fifteenth of Persichetti’s Serenades for various instruments (Opus 161) is the most ostensibly Baroque of Persichetti’s works for harpsichord, but its Prelude introduces this as a piece that looks to the future more palpably than it looks to the past. In the Prelude and the Episode that follows, Lewis emphasizes the music’s tunefulness, and his performance of the Bagatelle combines playfulness with technical prowess. His account of the Arioso truly sings. The inviolable concentration with which Lewis rips through the Capriccio meaningfully fulfills Persichetti’s goal of reawakening the demonstrative potential of the harpsichord.

When Wanda Landowska recorded Johann Sebastian Bach’s Goldberg Variations for the first time in 1933, the harpsichord was little more than an entry in musical encyclopedias. The small portion of its music that clung to familiarity was appropriated by pianists, few of whom were concerned with preserving the specific technique that the harpsichord’s mechanism necessitated. Nearly a century later, perhaps even Landowska would be astonished by the harpsichord’s near-miraculous return to prominence. Miracles are not wrought by men, but the harpsichord’s comeback has been catapulted into reality by artists of virtuosity and vision like Catalina Vicens and Christopher D. Lewis. Like Norma Desmond, Landowska would likely not have been comfortable with the term ‘comeback,’ not for her beloved harpsichord: ‘it’s a return,’ and, with discs like these two to its credit, an abundantly welcome one.

03 July 2017

CD REVIEW: Richard Wagner — PARSIFAL (L. Cleveman, K. Dalayman, J. Tomlinson, D. Roth, T. Fox, R. Hagen, R. Murray, A. Greenan; Hallé CD HLD 7539)

IN REVIEW: Richard Wagner - PARSIFAL (Hallé CD HLD 7539)RICHARD WAGNER (1813 – 1883): Parsifal, WWV 111Lars Cleveman (Parsifal), Katarina Dalayman (Kundry), Sir John Tomlinson (Gurnemanz), Detlef Roth (Amfortas), Tom Fox (Klingsor), Reinhard Hagen (Titurel), Robert Murray (Erster Gralsritter), Andrew Greenan (Zweiter Gralsritter), Sarah Castle (Knappe, Blumenmädchen), Madeleine Shaw (Knappe, Blumenmädchen, Stimme aus der Höhe), Joshua Ellicott (Knappe), Andrew Rees (Knappe), Elizabeth Cragg (Blumenmädchen), Anita Watson (Blumenmädchen), Ana James (Blumenmädchen), Anna Devin (Blumenmädchen); Hallé Youth Choir, Trinity Boys Choir, Royal Opera Chorus; The Hallé; Sir Mark Elder, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in concert at the BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, UK, on 25 August 2013; The Hallé CD HLD 7539; 4 CDs, 258:35; Available from The Hallé, Amazon (USA), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

In the long, complicated history of human endeavor, a conundrum with which many societies and intellectuals have contended is the assessment of the true value of art. From a doggedly practical perspective, art fails modern efficiency standards’ litmus test of tangible value by having no effect on the fit, form, or function of man’s existence: art neither fills the lungs with oxygen nor causes the heart to beat. During the darkest days of World War II, as pragmatic a thinker as Sir Winston Churchill argued that art made the ferocious battle to preserve the British way of life worthwhile, however, recognizing art as a manifestation of humanity’s ascent out of barbarity. Who can view Michelangelo’s Pietà, awed by the serene honesty of its emotion, and not believe at least for a moment that the figures are of flesh rather than of marble? Who can gaze at Ansel Adams’s photographs of the American West and not surrender at least for a moment to an unspoiled communion with nature? Whether the medium is sculpture, still life, sonnet, or song, art is a conduit between man and his nature, and few artists have dedicated themselves as completely to facilitating man’s exploration of his own accomplishments and absurdities as did Richard Wagner. After indelibly altering the development of opera in the Nineteenth Century with scores as revolutionary as the politics of his youth, he crowned his career with Parsifal, an opera that fascinates, confounds, and provokes as potently in 2017 as when it was premièred in 1882 at the second Bayreuther Festspiele. Parsifal exerts no influence on the elementary functions of the universe, but hearing such music as the opera contains can convince even the casual listener that there is meaning in the most mundane mechanics of living.

Like many details of Wagner’s self-propagated mythology, the oft-repeated account of Parsifal’s genesis dating to a sun-drenched Good Friday experienced on the Swiss estate of Otto and Mathilde Wesendonck in 1857 is equal parts hyperbole and outright fabrication. Impressed by reading first Wolfram von Eschenbach’s Parzival, with which he became acquainted in 1845, and, a decade later, the work of Arthur Schopenhauer, Wagner indeed resolved in 1857 to adapt the story of the Arthurian Grail Knight Percival to music, but the notion was set aside until 1865, by which time he had completed Tristan und Isolde and drafted Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, operas in which the Celtic and Teutonic origins of the Percival legend and its literary incarnations were also evident. Another quarter-century would pass—and witness the composition of the behemoth Der Ring des Nibelungen and the construction of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus—before Wagner again turned his attention to Parsifal. Completing the libretto and composing the music of Parsifal occupied Wagner for more than two years, from February 1877 until his finalization of Act Three in April 1879. Beginning with the Act One Vorspiel in 1878, fully scoring the opera required another three-and-a-half years. After such a vast gestation, the titanic Bühnenweihfestspiel reached the stage of the Bayreuther Festspielhaus on 26 July 1882, with a cast that included tenor Hermann Winkelmann, soprano Amalie Materna (Brünnhilde in the first complete Bayreuth Ring), and Emil Scaria as Parsifal, Kundry, and Gurnemanz. Thus began the continuing narrative of one of Western civilization’s most momentous artistic phenomena.

Saying that the demands made by Parsifal on singers, instrumentalists, and conductors are formidable is an understatement of Wagnerian proportions. When scoring Parsifal, Wagner was cognizant of the opera’s literal and symbolic functions as the summation of his life’s work, and he crafted the work with music of incredible complexity and difficulty. Under the sagaciously-wielded baton of Sir Mark Elder, The Hallé’s musicians attain in the first bars of the Vorspiel that precedes Act One an exalted level of excellence that persists throughout this performance, recorded in concert in Royal Albert Hall during the 2013 BBC Proms. The Hallé’s execution of the diaphanous string writing in the Karfreitagmusik and Verwandlungsmusik shimmers with the ethereal mysticism that the dramatic situations require, and the orchestra’s brass and woodwind players, not least the contrabassoon, elsewhere employed by Wagner only in his lone completed Symphony, deliver their parts with exceptional accuracy. The Hallé’s mastery of Parsifal rivals that of the finest Bayreuth orchestras. Their exemplary work is mirrored by the superb singing of the Trinity Boys Choir, the Hallé Youth Choir, and the Royal Opera Chorus, respectively led by Michael Holiday, Richard Wilberforce, and Renato Balsadonna. Not even the most fervent Wagnerian can deny that Act One of Parsifal is a leviathan of Biblical dimensions, one that outstays its welcome in many performances. Likewise, the opera’s final pages can be lost in a treacly haze. In this Parsifal, Elder, the Hallé, and the combined choruses provide the musical and dramatic clarity, continuity, and propulsion that the score needs in order to achieve all that Wagner intended. With virtually no distracting reminders of the provenance of the recording, this performance mesmerizingly conveys the power and poetry of Parsifal.

Epitomizing the hypnotic vigor of this performance is the ensemble of Blumenmädchen, sopranos Elizabeth Cragg, Anna Devin, Ana James, and Anita Watson and mezzo-sopranos Sarah Castle and Madeleine Shaw. The ladies’ euphonious sounds conjure the seductive atmosphere missing from so many performances of their scene. Shaw is also a Stimme aus der Höhe whose words have ramifications, and she is joined by Castle and tenors Joshua Ellicott and Andrew Rees in the quartet of fresh-voiced Knappen. As the Gralsritter, tenor Robert Murray and bass-baritone Andrew Greenan sing handsomely, their exchanges with Gurnemanz and the Knappen phrased with alert handling of the text. In generations past, one could hear voices of the caliber of those of Montserrat Caballé, Hilde Güden, Gundula Janowitz, James McCracken, Kurt Moll, and Kostas Paskalis as Blumenmädchen, Knappen, and Gralsritter in performances of Parsifal. The casting of these parts in this performance recalls those bygone days of Wagner singing.

Further expanding the vocal distinction of this performance is the unexaggerated, truly sung Klingsor of American baritone Tom Fox. Parsifal’s villain is portrayed in many performances as a wheezing caricature with little dramatic impetus—and often with very cavalier approaches to intonation. As sung by Fox in this performance, however, Klingsor is a reptilian conniver who wields vocalism as entrancing as his sorcery. From his first ‘Die Zeit is da,’ Fox traverses Klingsor’s music with focused, flinty tone. When he summons Kundry with ‘Dein Meister ruft dich Namenlose, Urteufelin, Höllenrose,’ the injury of the girl’s shame strikes at the listener’s heart. Fox finds nuances in ‘Furchtbare Not! So lacht nun der Teufel mein, dass einst ich nach dem Heiligen rang?’ that few Klingsors bother to seek, and he declaims ‘Seine Wunde trägt jeder nach heim! Wie das ich euch gönne!’ electrifyingly without bawling. There are suggestions of the defeated but defiant Wotan in Fox’s singing of ‘Halt da! Dich bann' ich mit der rechten Wehr! Den Toren stelle mir seines Meisters Speer!’ Fox lends Klingsor the intrigue of a fallen and not merely an evil man, and this interpretive imagination allied with his secure vocalism makes him one of the most engaging Klingsors on disc.

German bass Reinhard Hagen—an aptly-named Wagnerian—is a Titurel who evinces the character’s suffering without inflicting it upon the listener with pained, ugly singing. The sorrow, frustration, and exhaustion that shape Hagen’s singing of ‘Mein Sohn Amfortas, bist du am Amt?’ are derived not from the singer’s vocal production but from the text, and the dignity at the heart of the bass’s delivery of ‘Im Grabe leb’ich durch des Heilands Huld’ adds a measure of distinction to his portrayal of a man who is all too often depicted as a whining cipher. Titurel has as much about which to complain as any character in opera, but most winsome is the Titurel whose tribulations are expressed not in ranting but in song, as Hagen exhibits in this performance. When his voice resounds with ‘Oh, heilige Wonne! Wie hell grüsst uns heute der Herr!’ on this recording, Titurel initiates a prolonged catharsis via which the opera’s agonies are ultimately relieved. Like Fox’s Klingsor, Hagen’s Titurel is an atypically detailed characterization that benefits from uncommonly solid singing.

Prior to this BBC Proms performance, Freudenstadt-born baritone Detlef Roth’s Amfortas was heard in five consecutive Bayreuth seasons, an achievement that places him in the company of George London, Thomas Stewart, and Bernd Weikl among the Festspiele’s longest-serving exponents of the part. His singing on these discs confirms that Roth’s Amfortas was as comfortable in Kensington as on the Green Hill. In Act One, Roth sings ‘Recht so! Habt Dank! Ein wenig Rast’ nobly, and the suggestiveness of his ‘Du, Kundry? Muss ich dir nochmals danken, du rastlos scheue Magd?’ intensifies the significance of the relationships among Kundry and the other players in Parsifal’s drama. The baritone gives both ‘Wehe! Wehe mir der Qual! Mein Vater, oh! noch einmal verrichte du das Amt!’ and ‘Des Weihgefässes göttlicher Gehalt erglüht mit leuchtender Gewalt’ the histrionic force that these passages lack in many performances, but the timbre often seems at odds with the music: when brawn is wanted, suavity is supplied. Roth’s Amfortas is an active participant instead of a ceremonial observer in Act Three, his statement of ‘Mein Vater! Hochgesegneter der Helden!’ voiced with awe and assurance. The sincerity of this Amfortas’s query of ‘Wer will mich zwingen zu leben, könnt ihr doch Tod mir nur geben?’ markedly enhances the emotional impact of the opera’s final scene. Even in the context of a recording of a concert performance, Roth’s ingratiating singing impressively creates and maintains genuine dramatic presence, but the ears often crave a more robust sound.

There is no question that Sir John Tomlinson is among England’s most distinguished Wagnerians. His portrayal of Hunding in Die Walküre remains remarkable for the menace that the bass conveyed without shouting, and he was the rare König Marke in Tristan und Isolde whose heartbreak was as palpable as his ire. Tomlinson sang Titurel powerfully in Daniel Barenboim’s studio recording of Parsifal and engrossingly depicted Gurnemanz in the 1993 Berlin production, also conducted by Barenboim, that was released on Laser Disc and VHS. Twenty-two years later, the intelligence and insightfulness of his interpretation of Gurnemanz are undiminished, but the intervening decades have exacted an unmistakable toll on the voice. Tones in the middle of the generally range retain the orotundity familiar from the best years of Tomlinson’s career, but resonance is lost below the stave. Pitches are almost always accurate, but notes above B♭3 wobble. The long narration with which Gurnemanz opens Act One is a fearsome test of both a singer’s stamina and his ability to sustain dramatic momentum in music of relative stasis. His first notes in ‘He! Ho! Waldhüter ihr, Schlafhüter mitsammen, so wacht doch mindest am Morgen!’ introduce Gurnemanz as a man of unyielding seriousness of purpose, and Tomlinson enunciates ‘Er naht: sie bringen ihn getragen’ and ‘Ich wähne, ist dies Schaden, so tät’ er euch gut geraten’ with appropriate gravitas. The very different demands of ‘Oh, wunden-wundervoller heiliger Speer! Ich sah dich schwingen von unheiligster Hand!’ and ‘Titurel, der fromme Held, der kannt’ ihn wohl’ are met with the understanding that comes only from long acquaintance with the music, and the bass elucidates the mysticism with which Wagner inundated ‘Deine Mutter, der du entlaufen, und die um dich sich nun härmt und grämt.’

Absent from Act Two, Gurnemanz returns in Act Three, wearied by age and calamity, to guide Parsifal to the resolution for which he has hoped. The weight of the years that separate Parsifal’s first appearance from his return to the Domain of the Grail is heard in Gurnemanz’s voice as he sings ‘Von dorther kam das Stöhnen,’ and the immediacy of this Gurnemanz’s utterance of ‘Wie anders schreitet sie als sonst!’ reminds the listener of the human elements of the drama’s metaphysical stakes. ‘So kennst auch du mich noch? Erkennst mich wieder, den Gram und Not so tief gebeugt?’ seems to issue from both the soul and the throat. Tomlinson’s singing of ‘O Gnade! Höchstes Heil! O Wunder! Heilig hehrstes Wunder!’ is deeply moving, the effort in the vocal projection reflecting the character’s long perseverance. With ‘So ward es uns verhiessen, so segne ich dein Haupt, als König dich zu grüssen,’ the bass makes palpable Gurnemanz’s realization that an end to the misery that has surrounded him for so long is nigh. The solemnity of Tomlinson’s voicing of ‘Mittag: Die Stund' ist da: gestatte Herr, dass dich dein Knecht geleite’ discloses the breadth of the character’s faith. There are flaws in Tomlinson’s singing that, assessed individually, undermine his musical portrait of Gurnemanz. They cannot be ignored or said not to matter, but they are easily forgiven when the cumulative performance is so memorable. Gurnemanz sometimes becomes a curmudgeon who prattles on beyond the boundaries of audiences’ attention spans, but Tomlinson is here a Gurnemanz whose cautionary tales are the lifeblood of a timely parable.

Recently a riveting Fricka in Stockholm’s Ring des Nibelungen, Swedish soprano Katarina Dalayman enriches this recording of Parsifal with a Kundry of psychological subtlety and vocal security, one who, complementing Fox’s Klingsor, is refreshingly free of shrieking and silliness. The Kundrys of Kirsten Flagstad, sadly reaching modern ears in complete form through sonic murk, and Maria Callas, whose interpretation of this part that she sang only five times is preserved solely in a RAI concert performance that was sung in Italian, are very different, but there are reminders of both in Dalayman’s London performance. Neither Flagstad’s tonal amplitude nor Callas’s dramatic incisiveness is a natural component of Dalayman’s artistry, but her Kundry is all the more remarkable for rivaling much of what Flagstad and Callas respectively achieved with more voice and more ferocity. In Act One, Dalayman’s Kundry is less insinuating than guardedly introverted, each word seemingly considered before it is uttered. Her ‘Von weiter her als du denken kannst. Hilft der Balsam nicht, Arabia birgt dann nichts mehr zu seinem Heil’ is the pronouncement of a troubled woman, not a treacherous temptress, and the ardor with which she asserts ‘Ich helfe nie’ transcends the all-purpose malevolence in which many singers cloak Kundry. Dalayman phrases ‘Den Vaterlosen gebar die Mutter, als im Kampf erschlagen Gamure’ with vehemence rather than venom.

The contrast between the Kundry of Act One and the woman who hurtles into Act Two is particularly arresting in this performance. Here, too, Dalayman has obviously devoted great thought to her rôle, eschewing the snarling and sneering that are sometimes substituted for interpreting Kundry. The soprano’s stinging ‘Ach! Ach! Tiefe Nacht...’ unleashes in four words the essence of the character, the battle against the fate to which her actions condemned her awakening an animalistic brutality aimed as much at herself as at either Klingsor or Parsifal. The fervor of Dalayman’s account of ‘Oh, ewiger Schlaf, einziges Heil, wie, wie dich gewinnen?’ is heightened by the beauty of her tone. Confronting Parsifal, equally her tormentor and her deliverer, this Kundry launches ‘Hier weile, Parsifal! Dich grüsset Wonne und Heil zumal’ with sure aim. The phenomenal condition of Dalayman’s voice throughout the performance is epitomized by the spectacular top B with which she recalls Kundry’s ridicule of the dying Christ. Reduced in Act Three to cries of ‘Dienen... Dienen...,’ this indomitable woman is nevertheless far more than an apparition on the fringes of the male-dominated society. As depicted by Dalayman in this performance, Kundry claims her rightful place in the lineage of Wagner’s redemptive heroines extending from Senta to Brünnhilde, donning the mantle of a tragic heroine. Joining her Brünnhildes in recorded concert performances of Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung with the Hallé and Elder, Dalayman’s Kundry in this recording is a compelling impersonation by one of today’s most probing Wagnerians of one of Wagner’s most enigmatic characters.

On records and on stage, Parsifal’s music has been sung by a remarkably broad array of voices, ranging from the bronzed sounds of Lauritz Melchior to the pewter-hued effusions of Jon Vickers and the Mediterranean timbre of Plácido Domingo. An impressive Siegfried in the same Stockholm Ring in which Dalayman portrayed the character’s imperious step-grandmother, as well in the Hallé’s Götterdämmerung, Swedish tenor Lars Cleveman is as recorded here a Parsifal whose voice occupies a position near the center of that spectrum. His is a reasonably youthful but muscular sound, and the steadiness of his singing throughout the range and at all levels of dynamics earns appreciation. The bravado of the good-natured but largely doltish Parsifal of Act One rings in Cleveman’s traversals of ‘Gewiss! Im Fluge treff’ ich, was fliegt!’ and ‘Ja! Und einst am Waldessaume vorbei, auf schönen Tieren sitzend, kamen glänzende Männer,’ his demeanor casual but committed. He sings ‘Ich schreite kaum, doch wähn’ ich mich schon weit’ boyishly. Like his Kundry, this Parsifal is transformed in Act Two into an altogether different figure. Cleveman communicates the shifting sentiments of ‘Noch nie sah ich solch zieres Geschlecht’ and ‘Ihr wild holdes Blumengedränge, soll ich mit euch spielen, entlasst mich der Enge!’ with pointed diction, and the raw virility of his voicing of ‘Nie sah ich, nie träumte mir, was jetzt ich schau’, und was mit Bangen mich erfüllt’ is exhilarating and illuminating. The zeal with which he sings ‘Amfortas! Die Wunde! Die Wunde! Sie brennt in meinem Herzen’ and ‘Auf Ewigkeit wärst du verdammt mit mir für eine Stunde’ adds a facet of virility to his portrayal, increasing Parsifal’s credibility as a Romantic—if not a romantic—hero.

The passive, puerile Parsifal of Act One is metamorphosed by Cleveman into a man of action in Act Three, the tenor’s sinewy singing of ‘Heil mir, dass ich dich wieder finde!’ followed by a steely but expressive ‘Zu ihm, des’ tiefe Klagen ich törig staunend einst vernahm.’ Addressing Kundry with an imaginatively-phrased ‘Du wuschest mir die Füsse, nun netze mir das Haupt der Freund,’ his comportment is softened by tenderness. Matured by experience, this Parsifal voices ‘O wehe, des höchsten Schmerzentags!’ and ‘Nur eine Waffe taugt: die Wunde schliesst der Speer nur, der sie schlug’ with personal consequence. The character’s exclamation of ‘Oh! Welchen Wunders höchstes Glück!’ can seem artificial and slightly foolish, but Cleveman’s delivery grants it credence. Like Siegfried in the Ring, Parsifal can annoy when his man-child mannerisms are overemphasized, but Cleveman fashions a sensible balance between exuberance and sobriety. Most importantly in this gargantuan rôle, he sings attractively and with adequate reserves of hardiness for climaxes.

Since the opera’s first performance in 1882, Parsifal’s merits have been heatedly debated, some listeners perceiving in the score a deterioration of Wagner’s abilities and others deeming it the most perfect product of the composer’s genius. An objective analysis of the score would likely yield an opinion that neither wholly substantiates nor refutes either extremity, but objectivity is not among the earnest Wagnerian’s traits. For that matter, Parsifal is not conducive to compromise, the qualities that define it making it anything but a ‘take it or leave it’ opera. Whether individual listeners love or loathe it, Parsifal’s success in performance depends upon the same factors that allow works by Mozart, Donizetti, Verdi, or Puccini to sink or soar: cogent conducting, playing, and singing. With all of these factors to its credit, this is a Parsifal that soars.

22 June 2017

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | June 2017: Georg Friedrich Händel — OTTONE, RE DI GERMANIA, HWV 15 (M.E. Cenčić, L. Snouffer, P. Kudinov, A. Hallenberg, X. Sabata, A. Starushkevych; DECCA 483 1814)

RECORDING OF THE MONTH | May 2017: Georg Friedrich Händel - OTTONE, RE DI GERMANIA (DECCA 483 1814)GEORG FRIEDRICH HÄNDEL (1685 – 1759): Ottone, re di Germania, HWV 15Max Emanuel Cenčić (Ottone), Lauren Snouffer (Teofane), Pavel Kudinov (Emireno), Ann Hallenberg (Gismonda), Xavier Sabata (Adalberto), Anna Starushkevych (Matilda); Il pomo d’oro; George Petrou, conductor [Recorded in Villa San Fermo, Lonigo, Italy, 22 June - 2 July 2016; DECCA 483 1814; 3 CDs, 203:07; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

England in 1723 was in some ways perhaps not unlike the Holy Roman Empire in the Tenth Century. The death of the heirless Queen Anne in 1714 ended the Stuart dynasty and, according to the anti-Catholic dictates of 1701’s Act of Settlement, conferred the British crown upon a Continental head. In 1723, Anne’s second cousin and successor George I was in the ninth year of his thirteen-year reign and still embroiled politically and socially in defending the legitimacy of the Hanoverian occupancy of the British throne. Attending to his royal duties whilst entertaining London society with a mistress—perhaps his secret wife—as his de facto consort and perennially feuding with his recalcitrant son, the eventual George II, the first King George clung to his adopted throne with Teutonic tenacity. Many of Britain’s political players were none too impressed by the mandated German subjugation of the halls of power, but London’s music lovers welcomed at least one vassal of the Hanoverian court, one whose tenure in the English capital had actually begun in the twilight of Queen Anne’s reign: Georg Friedrich Händel.

Nearly a millennium earlier, the Holy Roman Empire was also governed by a German-born prince, the Saxon Otto II, son of Otto the Great and husband of Theophanu, a niece of the Byzantine emperor. Crowned co-emperor alongside his father by Pope John XIII in 967, the younger Otto’s continued rule after the death of Otto I in 973 was secured. Like that of George I, Otto II’s administration was not fated to be long-lived, extending for only a decade and a few months until the young emperor’s death at the age of twenty-eight. Though the fraction of the Tenth Century during which Otto II sat on the imperial throne was a time of relative calm, the succession of his three-year-old son plunged the Holy Roman Empire into unrest like that against which Otto I fought. Ironically, Otto II’s operatic adversaries, Adalbert of Italy and his duplicitous mother Willa of Tuscany, figured little if at all in the emperor’s affairs: Willa is known to have died in 970, and Adalbert is thought by historians to have followed her in death no later than 975 but likely in 971. Even in the Twenty-First Century, far more is conjectured than actually known about the life of Otto II, but to Britons in the third decade of the Eighteenth Century he must have seemed an apt candidate for musical exhumation.

Premièred at the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket on 12 January 1723, Händel’s opera Ottone, re di Germania bridged the gap between Hanoverian Britain and the Tenth-Century Holy Roman Empire. The timely significance of an operatic tale of the machinations of a Germanic monarch and those supporting or opposing him surely was not lost on London audiences and would likely have ensured some degree of success for the new work, but Ottone conquered London with its music. Writing for an ensemble of world-renowned singers, Händel produced a score of extraordinary quality and inspiration, setting a new standard for his own efforts and paving the way to his annus mirabilis, 1724, in which year he composed Giulio Cesare in Egitto, Rodelinda, and Tamerlano. Intriguingly, much of the opera’s beauty arises from its inherent ambivalence: in Ottone, not even the basest villainy is wholly without noble objectives. Like those of many Eighteenth-Century operatic intriguers, the conniving of Ottone’s players is, depending upon the individual listener’s predilections, either captivatingly or confoundingly convoluted, but the opera’s drama is surprisingly palatable for modern listeners in this exhilarating new DECCA recording. Perceiving the antics of today’s politicians in Ottone’s plot hardly stretches the imagination. If only the voices that bark in legislative debates, press conferences, and incessant media coverage were as alluring as those that sing Händel’s music on these discs!

The scheming of the pseudo-historical figures who sing it notwithstanding, Händel’s music for Ottone is both beautiful and shrewdly characterful, the orchestrations that support the voices in several of the most beguiling arias intensifying the listener’s perceptions of aspects of the personalities that they portray. Dulcetly played by the continuo, the delicate accompaniment to Teofane’s exquisite aria ‘Falsa imagine’ is an example of Händel’s theatrical savvy and musical ingenuity at their most refined: in an aria that only threats of tossing her out of a window are said to have persuaded the first Teofane to sing, the plaintive music conveys the newly-arrived princess’s confusion and trepidation before she utters a word. It is perhaps this heightened atmosphere of musical and dramatic characterization that draws from conductor George Petrou one of his strongest recorded performances. Here leading the first-rate orchestral forces of Il pomo d’oro, Petrou supports the cast in bringing Händel’s characters to life, the tempi that he selects for arias right for both the music and the singers. The volleys of fiery bravura singing that modern listeners expect in Händel’s operas are present in Ottone, but this score shares with Tamerlano an emphasis on introspective contemplation. The vigor with which that contemplation transpires on these discs is evidence of the effectiveness of Petrou’s approach. Owing both to his galvanizing conducting and il pomo d’oro’s fantastic playing, this is the rare Händel recording that is as gripping as any staged performance in an opera house—more than many staged performances, in fact. This is a recording that must be heard by those listeners who believe that Händel’s operas and performances of them are dull.

The cast for whom Ottone was written could only with considerable planning have been rivaled in the Eighteenth Century: such a strong sextet of singers having been assembled for this recording is but one of the many vocal glories of this Ottone. In the opera’s 1723 première, the rôle of Matilda, the title character’s cousin and Adelberto’s intended bride, was sung by Anastasia Robinson, a singer with a constantly-evolving range for whom Händel composed a half-dozen of fine parts including Cornelia in Giulio Cesare. Filling Robinson’s shoes in this performance is Ukrainian mezzo-soprano Anna Starushkevych. A vibrant presence in recitatives throughout the performance, Starushkevych sings Matilda’s Act One aria ‘Diresti poi così?’ assertively, her technique equal to the demands of Händel’s music and the character’s appetite for revenge. The unique timbre of her voice ensures that Matilda is never lost in the twists of the opera’s serpentine plot. Her finest music comes in Act Two, and Starushkevych phrases ‘Ah! tu non sai quant’il mio cor sospira’ incisively. The immediacy of her delivery of ‘All’orror d’un duolo eterno’ is complemented by the reliable solidity of her intonation. This Matilda duets engagingly with Gismonda in ‘Notte cara,’ rejoicing in the progress of their plan to free Adelberto from Ottone’s clutches. Starushkevych reveals the full depths of her artistry in ‘Nel suo sangue, e nel tuo pianto’ in Act Three, performing the aria with focused tone and dramatic ardor, reveling in the offended lady’s desire for vengeance. Hints of unevenness are occasionally apparent in her vocal production, but her depiction of Matilda in this performance of Ottone induces eager anticipation for Starushkevych’s next appearance on disc.

Having originated the rôle of Pallante for Händel in the 1709 Venetian première of Agrippina, bass Giuseppe Maria Boschi reunited with Händel in London, where he participated in the first performances of several of the composer’s operas. His rôle in Ottone was Emireno, né Basilio, Teofane’s buccaneering brother, and Boschi’s eminently capable successor in this performance is Russian bass Pavel Kudinov. All three of Emireno’s arias are challenging, but Kudinov conquers their difficulties with singing of vigor and virtuosity. In Act One, Kudinov gives an account of ‘Del minacciar del vento sì ride quercia annosa’ that bristles with always-musical machismo. Then, the bass voices ‘Le profonde vie dell’onde’ in Act Two with a keen sense of the character’s motivations, dispatching the divisions with minimal effort. The aria ‘No, non temere, o bella’ in Act Three exposes a less bellicose facet of Emireno, and Kudinov polishes it with cultured, caressing vocalism. Entirely convincing as both a corsair and the brother of the empress consort, Kudinov is most compelling as an exponent of Händel’s music.

The part of Adelberto, the dutiful pawn in his mother Gismonda’s stratagems to usurp both Ottone’s throne and his bride, was created in 1723 by Gaetano Berenstadt, the castrato for whom Händel also wrote Tolomeo in Giulio Cesare and the title rôle in Flavio. As he confirms with his singing on this recording, there is no better-qualified modern interpreter of Adelberto’s music than countertenor Xavier Sabata. The ambivalence of Adelberto’s predicament finds in Sabata’s artistic temperament an ideal outlet, and his music might have been written for the countertenor’s voice. Adelberto’s entrance aria in Act One, ‘Bel labbro, formato per farmi beato,’ is a sublime piece, and Sabata sings it marvelously, his rounded, evenly-produced tones effortlessly tracing the aria’s expansive lines. His account of the vastly different ‘Tu puoi straziarmi’ blazes, ignited by Adelberto’s disdainful defiance of the victorious Ottone. Encountering his rightful fiancée Matilda as he is led away to prison in Act Two, Adelberto expresses his longing to learn fidelity and humility from his betrothed’s example in ‘Lascia, che nel suo viso,’ and Sabata sings the aria mesmerizingly. The sudden burst of sincerity in the spirit of a man whose path in the opera has heretofore been guided by duplicity is movingly evinced by the singer with sounds of tranquil beauty. His character battling meteorological and metaphysical tempests in Act Three, the countertenor traverses ‘D’innalzar i flutti al ciel’ with vocal confidence that enhances the subtlety of the psychological nuances of his portrayal. An antagonist but never truly a blackguard, Adelberto is one of Händel’s most interesting characters: in Sabata’s performance, he is a conflicted but sympathetic man who ultimately wins Matilda’s and the listener’s affections.

It was also in Venice in 1709 that Händel’s artistic path crossed that of soprano Margherita Durastanti, who created the title rôle in Agrippina. When their paths crossed again in London a decade later, she resumed her collaboration with Händel by singing the title rôle in Radamisto, Sesto in Giulio Cesare, and Gismonda in Ottone. So admired was Durastanti in London that her daughter, born in 1721, counted among her godparents the king himself, George I. Swedish mezzo-soprano Ann Hallenberg reminded listeners with her recent solo recording with il pomo d’oro, Carnevale 1729, that she is one of today’s foremost performers of Baroque repertory; an artist and a lady deserving of the admiration of royalty. Even with many wonderful recordings to her credit, Hallenberg’s performance as Gismonda in this Ottone is a milestone. From her first line of recitative, she commandeers the opera’s drama, at once appalling with her character’s incessant lust for power and touching with her genuine love for her son. In Gismonda’s opening aria, ‘Pur che regni il figlio amato,’ Hallenberg’s affinity for the part is affirmed, and she follows this with an animated but utterly stylish performance of ‘La speranza è giunta in porto.’ There is treachery beneath the surface of Hallenberg’s singing of ‘Pensa ad amare,’ but who could refuse anything asked by the source of such refined, appealing sounds? Allowing her maternal instincts a rare moment of exposure as her son is imprisoned in Act Two, Gismonda articulates her impulse to comfort Adelberto in ‘Vieni, o figlio, e mi consola,’ music in which the proud woman’s façade is infiltrated by candor. Here and in the duetto with Matilda, Hallenberg amazes with the intelligence of her vocal acting, never employing tonal beauty, of which she has tapped a seemingly inexhaustible vein, solely for its own sake. ‘Trema, tiranno’ in Act Three is a return to vehemence, and it is sung with potency and precision. Humanity is not a quality that would be immediately associated with Gismonda, but she has greater depth than some singers have bothered to explore. Hallenberg creates a fully three-dimensional character who loves as strongly as she hates and who sings as though it were notes rather than heartbeats that sustain her.

It was as Teofane in the first production of Ottone that Italian soprano Francesca Cuzzoni made her much-anticipated London début. In the following year, she would achieve artistic immortality with her portrayals of Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare, Asteria in Tamerlano, and the title rôle in Rodelinda, but it was as Teofane that she won the hearts of musical London. With singing that is both freshly youthful and refreshingly mature, soprano Lauren Snouffer besieges the listener’s heart, and her success is indisputable. Threats of physical violence were required to persuade Cuzzoni to sing Teofane’s first aria in Act One, the exquisite ‘Falsa imagine, m’ingannasti,’ but, Händel’s promise to toss her out of a window having prevailed, the soprano relented, sang the aria to great acclaim, and eventually sang it in virtually every venue in which someone would pay to hear her. If Snouffer required any convincing of the aria’s merit, her own performance of it should have eradicated any doubt. Her phrasing is light but not brittle, and her breath control is undaunted by the long melodic lines. The soprano brings to ‘Affanni del pensier’ energetic and sweetly feminine vocalism that conjures a persona both wounded and strong-willed. Snouffer voices ‘Alla fama, dimmi il vero’ and ‘S’io dir potessi al mio crudele’ in Act Two with abundant imagination and clear comprehension of Händel’s musical language. In Act Three, ‘Benchè mi sia crudele’ is enunciated with emotion as responsive to the text as to the music, and the soprano emits a stream of pure, flawlessly-tuned sound in ‘Gode l’alma consolata.’ She sings her part in the ecstatic duetto with Oronte, ‘A’ teneri affetti il cor s’abbandoni,’ an ancestor of ‘O namenlose Freude’ in Beethoven’s Fidelio, joyously, the voice radiating reclaimed happiness. With a flickering vibrato on sustained tones, Snouffer’s voice recalls that of Toti dal Monte, and her technique is reaching the high level of her natural talent. She is an intuitive singer who realizes that Teofane’s music needs only to be sung honestly and tastefully in order to be extraordinary, and it is the combination of honesty and taste that makes her singing in this Ottone extraordinarily satisfying.

The rôles that Händel wrote for the alto castrato Senesino are some of the most difficult parts in Baroque repertory to cast for modern performances. The brawn in the lower register that contemporary accounts attribute to Senesino eludes many countertenors, and female singers often lack timbres suited to credibly portraying heroic male characters like Orlando, Giulio Cesare, Andronico in Tamerlano, and Bertarido in Rodelinda. As Ottone in this performance, countertenor Max Emanuel Cenčić honors Senesino’s legacy with singing of muscle and musicality. Alternately sensual, serene, and rabble-rousing, Cenčić’s timbre possesses both the lower-register resonance and the bold masculinity that Ottone’s music requires. Always an alert, communicative artist in recitatives, Cenčić introduces Ottone’s seductive thoughtfulness with a lushly romantic account of ‘Ritorna, o dolce amore, conforta questo sen.’ [In the 1726 London revival of Ottone, Senesino returned to the title rôle. Unusually for a revival featuring a rôle’s originator, Händel made significant revisions to Ottone’s music, three of which are sampled on this recording. ‘Ritorna, o dolce amore’ was replaced by ‘Io sperai trovar riposo,’ which Cenčić here sings authoritatively, and ‘Cervo altier,’ also thrillingly delivered in this recording’s appendix, was inserted earlier in Act One.] The rollicking ‘Dell’onda ai fieri moti’ is voiced with bravado befitting an emperor.

Braving the dramatic gauntlet of Act Two, Cenčić sings ‘Dopo l’orrore’ charismatically, his technical assurance conveying the emperor’s dignity, and the spectrum of feelings that he imparts in ‘Deh! non dir, che molle amante’ is wondrous. Starting Act Three, the crestfallen Ottone seeks his beloved Teofane, and Cenčić sings ‘Dove sei, dolce mia vita?’ wrenchingly, the rising figurations representing Ottone’s growing despair voiced with particular emphasis. The despondency that grips Ottone in the accompagnato ‘Io son tradito’ floods Cenčić’s voice, and he pronounces the words with deliberateness that evinces shame and disbelief. As the countertenor sings it here, the superb ‘Tanti affanni ho nel mio core’ is the opera’s musical climax, the character’s churning emotions limned by vocalism free from artifice. [Surprisingly, ‘Tanti affanni’ was replaced in 1726 by ‘Un disprezzato affetto,’ a markedly inferior piece which Cenčić nonetheless sings well.] The gleam that his voice projects as he joins Snouffer in ‘A’ teneri affetti il cor s’abbandoni’ evokes irrepressible delight. Cenčić’s performances sometimes overwhelm with flamboyance rather than finesse, but he is an artist whose excesses shroud a profound interpretive vulnerability. In this performance of Ottone, simplicity is the crux of his portrayal. This is an Ottone who lives, one whose life matters to the listener not because he is an emperor but because he is a man, flawed and fascinating.

That Londoners in 1723 embraced a musical portrait of long-dead participants in a thousand-year-old political fracas should substantiate the absurdity of Twenty-First-Century debates about the relevance of opera. It is universally acknowledged that beauty is in the eye of the beholder: so, too, is the relevance of art. It is unlikely that any composer ever put a character upon the stage with the goal of inspiring an observer to say, ‘Yes, of course! He reminds me of Uncle Fred in Des Moines!’ That is not the nature of opera’s relevance. Opera is what those who perform and hear it make of it, and its relevance is born of perspective, not practicality. The musicians involved with this recording make Händel’s Ottone, re di Germania a passionately-sung, sumptuously-played examination of the conflicts between love and ambition. Voices are the essence of opera, and singing of the quality heard on this recording is always relevant.

19 June 2017

CD REVIEW: Felix Mendelssohn — SYMPHONIES NOS. 1 – 5 (Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor; Deutsche Grammophon 479 7337)

CD REVIEW: Felix Mendelssohn - SYMPHONIES NOS. 1 - 5 (Deutsche Grammophon 479 7337)FELIX MENDELSSOHN (1809 – 1847): Symphonies Nos. 1 – 5Karina Gauvin (soprano – Symphony No. 2), Regula Mühlemann (soprano – Symphony No. 2), Daniel Behle (tenor – Symphony No. 2); RIAS Kammerchor (Symphony No. 2); Chamber Orchestra of Europe; Yannick Nézet-Séguin, conductor [Recorded ‘live’ in Grande salle Pierre Boulez, Philharmonie, Paris, France, 20 – 22 February 2016; Deutsche Grammophon 479 7337; 3 CDs, 200:10; Available from Amazon (USA), fnac (France), iTunes, jpc (Germany), Presto Classical (UK), and major music retailers]

‘Hier stehe ich: ich kann nicht anders.’ With these seven words or a sentiment of similar brevity, one man changed the course of history in ways that continue to enrich, embolden, and embitter mankind. The publication in 1517 of Disputatio pro declaratione virtutis indulgentiarum, commonly known in English as the Ninety-Five Theses, ignited a conflagration of religious dissent that singed Europe and dispersed its smoke over every square millimeter of the globe. At the center of the inferno, the man whose thinking emitted the fateful sparks was Martin Luther, an Augustinian theologian whose questioning of the ethics of Catholic sales of indulgences is now believed by scholars to have been intended to provoke contemplation and quiet reform rather than outright philosophical revolution. In addition to the enduring, still-evolving ramifications of his theological paradigm shift, Luther exerted an influence of virtually incalculable significance on human culture. Without Luther’s pioneering translation of Biblical texts into the German vernacular and composition of hymns and chorales, Johann Sebastian Bach’s Passions, Georg Friedrich Händel’s Messiah, Johannes Brahms’s Ein Deutsches Requiem, and countless other seminal works of art might never have emerged from the minds of their creators.

Three hundred years after Luther’s issuance of the Ninety-Five Thesis, the eight-year-old scion of a well-respected German Jewish family of intellectuals was impressing his society with a rapidly-developing musical precocity that rivaled that of Europe’s greatest Wunderkind, Mozart. Born in the independent city of Hamburg on 3 February 1809, nine days before another of the Nineteenth Century’s preeminent geniuses, Abraham Lincoln, was born on the opposite shore of the Atlantic, Felix Mendelssohn benefited from as normal a childhood as a prodigy could expect. Without the necessity of earning a living via musical means, Mendelssohn’s father did not seek to profit from his son’s boyhood feats of musical prowess as Mozart’s had done a half-century earlier. Like Haydn, Mozart, and Brahms, Mendelssohn the composer was a master of form whose work expanded the creative possibilities of building new musical structures upon firmly-established foundations. Also like Mozart, Mendelssohn was destined for a brief life, but the breadth and significance of his accomplishments are remarkable—and in no genre more so than in the symphony.

Complemented by the dozen string symphonies composed during his adolescence, Mendelssohn’s five symphonies—or, as is now the preferred designation, his four symphonies and symphonic cantata—are cornerstones of German Romanticism, scores in which the stylistic advancements of the Eighteenth Century were propelled into the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries. Recorded in sound of astonishing clarity during performances in the Grande salle Pierre Boulez of Paris’s much-discussed Philharmonie, Deutsche Grammophon’s new accounts of Mendelssohn’s Symphonies featuring the Chamber Orchestra of Europe under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin sound as novel as they must have done during their composer’s lifetime. ‘Hier stehe ich,’ Mendelssohn said in these innovative scores, but what more might his thwarted genius have achieved?

In the opening Allegro di molto movement of Symphony No. 1 in C minor (Opus 11 / MWV N 13), the Québécois Nézet-Séguin and his COE colleagues institute tempi, textures, and balances among sections of the orchestra that uncannily highlight the Classical accents of Mendelssohn’s musical language whilst also speaking his ardently Romantic dialect with absolute fluency. One of the most brilliant facets of Nézet-Séguin’s artistry is his ability to simultaneously emphasize both a piece’s drama and its lyricism, and that facet sparkles throughout the performances on these discs. The rhythmic vitality initiated in the first movement is equally evident in the Andante second movement, in which some conductors sacrifice momentum in pursuit of externalized, often wrongheaded emotional contexts for the fifteen-year-old composer’s music. In this performance, Nézet-Séguin avoids the traps of approaching Symphony No. 1 as juvenilia that requires delicate handling or as a mature masterpiece needing no advocacy. The confident playing of the COE musicians heightens appreciation of the confidence that the young Mendelssohn’s music exudes. Nézet-Séguin manages the third movement’s transition from Menuetto to Trio with elegance, following the music’s lead. The energy with which Mendelssohn infused the Symphony’s closing Allegro con fuoco movement courses through this performance, the COE’s string playing a model of taut ensemble. The composer’s beloved sister Fanny must have been delighted by the Symphony, which was first performed in celebration of her nineteenth birthday, and that elation is recreated in this performance. How many birthday gifts continue to provide such enjoyment after 193 years?

Composed in 1840 in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the invention of modern printing, Mendelssohn’s large-scaled Lobgesang (Opus 52 / MWV A 18), a cousin of Beethoven’s Ninth and Mahler’s Second Symphonies, was published after the composer’s death as his Symphony No. 2. Chronologically, its genesis followed that of the Italian Symphony, but it was never regarded by the composer as a symphony, an opinion that was honored by the scholarly edition of the Mendelssohn canon prepared for the composer’s bicentennial in 2009, in which the Lobgesang was classified as a choral work rather than a symphony. Nevertheless, the piece’s structure has much in common with Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the duration of the final movement with vocal soloists and chorus exceding that of the instrumental movements combined. Under Nézet-Séguin’s leadership, the introductory Sinfonia possesses the grandeur necessary to prefacing so ambitious a work, but there are no traces of pomposity. The sincerity of the sense of ceremony that pervades the Maestoso con moto - Allegro lends the performance as a whole a welcome honesty. Nézet-Séguin interprets the subsequent Allegretto un poco agitato with straightforward vigor that contrasts markedly with the contemplative nuance of the conductor’s pacing of the Adagio religioso.

When the voices of the RIAS Kammerchor are first heard in the Allegro moderato maestoso chorus ‘Alles, was Odem hat, lobe den Herrn,’ the perceptiveness of Mendelssohn’s settings of the Biblical texts selected for his Lobgesang is immediately apparent. Enhanced by the uncommon clearness of the recorded sound, the choristers’ crystalline diction enables every syllable to be discerned. Joining the ladies of the chorus in ‘Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele,’ soprano Karina Gauvin offers excellent diction of her own, allied here with vocalism of unassailable concentration and poise. The tonal beauty of tenor Daniel Behle’s singing of the recitative ‘Saget es, die ihr erlöst seid durch den Herrn’ and Allegro moderato aria ‘Er zählet unsre Tränen’ is stirring, but the subtlety of his enunciation of text is no less impressive. Supported by conductor and orchestra, the choral reprise of ‘Saget es, die ihr erlöst seid’ resounds with probity.

In their Andante duet, ‘Ich harrete des Herrn,’ Gauvin and soprano Regula Mühlemann blend their very different voices with consummate skill, the Canadian soprano’s slightly heavier timbre providing a warm rose-gold setting for her colleague’s opalescent tones. The chorus ‘Wohl dem, der seine Hoffnung setzt’ is delivered with musical and emotional power, Nézet-Séguin’s conducting spotlighting the organic thematic development in even Mendelssohn’s most transparent writing. Behle’s mellifluous voicing of ‘Stricke des Todes hatten uns umfangen’ is answered by Gauvin’s radiant reading of ‘Die Nacht ist vergangen,’ and their RIAS Kammerchor comrades elucidate the meaningful intricacies of the exuberant Allegro maestoso e molto vivace ‘Die Nacht ist vergangen.’ Marked Andante con moto - Un poco più animato, the chorale ‘Nun danket alle Gott’ is sung atmospherically, the sounds of the words used to conjure an aura of spiritual awe. The Andante sostenuto troppo duet ‘Drum sing’ ich mit meinem Liede ewig dein Lob’ receives from Behle and Gauvin a traversal of moving sensitivity, Mendelssohn’s melodic lines blossoming with the semblance of spontaneity. The Allegro non troppo chorus ‘Ihr Völker, bringet her dem Herrn Ehre und Macht!’ and final ‘Danket dem Herrn und rühmt seinen Namen’ are performed without affectation: choristers, instrumentalists, and conductor all inhabit the music as though it were their own creation. Symphony, cantata, or hybrid, Mendelssohn’s Lobgesang is in this performance a genuine hymn of praise.

The editions of the Third, Fourth, and Fifth Symphonies employed by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Nézet-Séguin for the concerts that yielded these recordings were prepared by late British conductor and musicologist Christopher Hogwood, whose close acquaintance with Baroque and Classical repertories afforded him an unique perspective on Mendelssohn’s music. This is particularly valuable in Symphony No. 3 in A minor (Opus 56 / MWV N 18), the widely-known Scottish Symphony inspired by the composer’s travels through the Highlands and Scotland’s rugged islands. Whether or not his own globetrotting has instilled in Nézet-Séguin any special affection for Scotland, his affinity for Mendelssohn’s musical portrait of the country is unmistakable. The metamorphoses from Andante con moto to Allegro un poco agitato, Assai animato, and Andante come prima in the Symphony’s first movement are exaggerated by many conductors at the expense of continuity, but Nézet-Séguin finds within each change of tempo its core relationship with the movement’s broader structure. In the Vivace non troppo movement that follows, the electricity of the musicians’ playing illuminates Highlands landscapes in the listener’s mind’s eye. The impact of the polarity of the subsequent Adagio could hardly be greater, but here, too, Nézet-Séguin and COE only accentuate the disparities that are inherent in the music, playing what Mendelssohn wrote as he wrote it and inviting the listener to share in the labor of interpretation. As realized in this performance, the evocative effervescence of the Allegro vivacissimo - Allegro maestoso assai movement mimics the crashing of the sea upon Scotland’s craggy coastline. The appeal of this music is difficult to resist in the context of half-hearted performances: here, the mighty Hebrides themselves might be swept away by the force of the music making.

Dating from 1833, in which year the score was premièred by the London Philharmonic Society, Symphony No. 4 in A major (Opus 90 / MWV N 16), christened by the composer as his Italian Symphony, is perhaps Mendelssohn’s most familiar work in symphonic form, and its profusion of sun-drenched tunes is a formidable attraction. The picturesque immediacy of the writing in the Scottish Symphony is paralleled and perhaps exceeded by that in the Italian, and every Mediterranean detail of Mendelssohn’s musical depiction of bella Italia is affectionately illustrated by Nézet-Séguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe. The whir of traffic in the congested streets of Rome buzzes in their playing of the Allegro vivace, and their performance of the Andante con moto suggests the relaxed ambiance of the emblematic passeggiata. Nézet-Séguin perfectly judges Mendelssohn’s ‘Con moto moderato’ instruction in the Menuetto, his tempo precisely suited to the music and COE’s truly terpsichorean playing of it. The Presto Saltarello is among the few pieces of Classical Music to have enjoyed life beyond its natural habitat. Recognized by listeners who have never seen the interior of a concert hall, its frenetic opening subject is unforgettable. Regrettably, many performances of the Italian Symphony are all too forgettable, but the rendering of the Saltarello that concludes this performance of the Symphony is representative of a fusion of engaging moxie with irreproachable musicianship. This is not German fare that has been artifically flavored with Italian herbs but a festa italiana prepared by a chef d’orchestre with cosmopolitan flair.

It is hardly surprising that a composer as respectful of and responsive to music of prior generations as Mendelssohn should have drawn considerable inspiration from history. As vibrant as the musical vistas in the Scottish and Italian Symphonies is the aural homage to spiritual renewal in the Reformation Symphony, Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 5 in D minor (Opus 107 / MWV N 15). Negotiating the shift from Andante to Allegro con fuoco in the opening movement with his customary attention to the composer’s motivations for the change, Nézet-Séguin leads this performance of the Reformation with controlled zeal. The COE strings’ articulation in the Allegro vivace compels admiration, and the orchestra’s brass playing is praiseworthy throughout the performance. Kettledrums have never been more effectively—and sometimes startlingly—recorded than on these discs. Leading into the recitative that announces the Symphony’s final chorale, the Andante radiates the simplicity that is the nucleus of the greatest works of art. Nézet-Séguin observes the reverence of Mendelssohn’s treatment of Martin Luther’s ‘Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott,’ guiding the orchestra in a display of sonorous solemnity. Navigating the Andante con moto, Allegro vivace, and Allegro maestoso sections with grace, conductor and musicians resolve Mendelssohn’s Reformation with an exhibition of the power of music to communicate universal ideals of endurance and hope that require neither words nor creeds.

In analyses of the development of the modern symphony from its origins in Baroque models to the Twenty-First-Century incarnations, the vital rôle played by Felix Mendelssohn is often undervalued and sometimes altogether overlooked. The important contributions of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, Bruckner, and Mahler to the symphony’s Darwinian progress are universally acknowledged, but Mendelssohn’s Symphonies, though widely respected, are encountered less frequently in the repertories of the world’s great orchestras than those of his illustrious fellow symphonists. The quincentennial of Martin Luther’s instigation of the Protestant Reformation is an apt occasion for a reappraisal of Mendelssohn’s Symphonies. As in any repertoire, the most persuasive argument on behalf of the quality of Mendelssohn’s music is made by playing it as the composer intended it to be played, seeking meaning and relevance within the scores. Yannick Nézet-Séguin and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe accomplish this as compellingly in these performances of Mendelssohn’s Symphonies as in their DGG survey of Mozart’s mature operas, soon to be expanded by a recording of La clemenza di Tito. Mendelssohn’s Symphonies pose challenging questions to conductors and musicians, but the performances on this new release find answers that are not exclusively but wholly right.